In A Confounding Republican Primary, Is Gomez Surging?

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Gabriel Gomez. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Gabriel Gomez. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By any traditional measure, it's been a good week for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez.

Campaign finance reports show he's got a sizable financial edge on his GOP rivals, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and state Rep. Dan Winslow.

A new survey out of the Western New England University Polling Institute has him surging into first place, with a 33-27 lead over his next closest rival, Sullivan.

And Gomez, a venture capitalist and former Navy SEAL, even picked up the endorsement of former Republican Gov. William Weld.

Will Ritter, a spokesman for the Gomez campaign, says the tide is moving in his candidate's favor.

But with the Republican primary just a few days away, is the Gomentum real? Is he really in the driver's seat? Has he really narrowed the contest to a one-on-one battle with the early favorite, Sullivan?

Maybe, say independent analysts and unaligned Republican operatives. But maybe not.

"I'm not quite convinced of that yet," says Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist and director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College.

Money is important, observers note, but it's not everything. And the Western New England poll's sample of Republican voters was so small — 128 — and its margin of error so large — 9 percent — that it's hard to put much stock in the results.

The uncertainty hanging over Gomez's standing is emblematic of a much larger uncertainty hanging over the race.

The ambiguity owes something to the ho-hum quality of the contest, a special election to replace former Sen. John Kerry, who was recently elevated to U.S. secretary of state.

Former Republican Sen. Scott Brown's decision to forgo the race robbed the contest of considerable star power. And unlike the 2010 special election that thrust Brown into office, there was no animating issue — like Obamacare — to stir interest at the outset.

That's meant limited media coverage and independent polling, especially on the GOP side.

The Boston Marathon bombings had the potential to give the race some definition. And it has, to some degree, on the Democratic side, where Congressmen Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey have traded jabs on homeland security votes.


The GOP contenders, though, don't have voting records to critique. And none of them have been able to turn the heightened concern over terrorism into any discernible advantage.

Jason Kauppi, a Republican media consultant unaligned with any of the campaigns, says the bombing story — so dominant in Massachusetts for the past couple of weeks —  seems to have smothered the GOP campaign rather than to have jolted it.

But it's not merely the faint impact of the issues that makes it difficult to predict the Republican primary. There's also little in the way of precedent for this race.

Scott Brown had only token opposition in the GOP Senate special election primary in December 2009.

And the last high-profile, competitive statewide Republican primary of any kind was in 1998, when acting Gov. Paul Cellucci beat back a challenge from Treasurer Joe Malone.

The current Senate contest, moreover, includes a wildcard not seen in a statewide Republican primary for more than 20 years: a viable, hard-line conservative.

That conservative, Sullivan, is counting on his GOP credentials and his long history as a public figure to carry the day in what is expected to be a low-turnout election powered by died-in-the-wool Republican voters.

Little surprise, then, that he's hammered Gomez for a letter he wrote to Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, seeking an interim appointment to the Senate after Kerry's departure and offering to support President Obama's agenda on immigration and gun control.

The conventional wisdom says the more moderate Gomez and Winslow need to draw a significant cohort of independent voters to the polls if they're to counter Sullivan's natural strength among conservatives.

But in such an ill-defined race, it's not clear that the conventional wisdom is right. The Western New England University poll, for what it's worth, had Gomez and Sullivan performing equally well among independents (PDF).

And it's hard to know how many independents will even vote on Tuesday — and how many will choose to vote in the Republican primary, rather than the Democratic one.

In a close race, geographic strength can have a clarifying effect. If a candidate hails from a vote-rich area and his opponents do not, that can be decisive.

But if Sullivan's history as a state representative and district attorney on the crucial South Shore suggests an edge there, Gomez's own South Shore residence complicates matters.

All this uncertainty could make the final weekend of the campaign more important than it would normally be.

But no matter how the candidates perform in the coming days, it's hard to imagine observers will be any surer of the outcome come Tuesday morning.


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